Girl Child Labour and Education


Girls do enormous work at home and at the fields. They carry water fetch by fetch, collect fuel wood, cook, clean, wash, take care of siblings and act like little mothers. They also work relentlessly, in all seasons, as agricultural labourers. Several hundreds of girls also work in stone and lime quarries in this area. They carry head loads of earth and rubble from the pits at least fifty feet down the risky, narrow stairways. At the end of the day these tired girls just collapse with body aches and pains about which they cannot even complain.
In a survey conducted by the MV Foundation of the families of girl children engaged as farm labourers in cotton seed farms, it was found that while girls worked 29.4 days in a month on wage work, the women worked 22.2 days and the men 18.6 days. Further the contribution of the girl to the family income was 28.7%, of the women 28.3% and of the men 42.8% during that month. It has also been found that the girls are being engaged in new forms of exploitative relationship vis-à-vis the employers. Thus for instance in a conventional situation girls in the area always worked on a daily wage basis as agricultural labourers. They seldom worked as bonded labourers against an advance taken by the family. It was usually the boys who were pledged against a loan taken as bonded labourers. However it is now quite common to see girls working to clear off the advance taken by the parents. This practice is growing, especially in areas of intensive commercial crops such as cotton, oilseeds, seed farms and so on. There is a growing demand for girl children. Indeed, the decision to take up a venture on farming is made only if there is an assured supply of girls in place. The entrepreneurs even go to the schools to cajole them to join as workers. The employers have also designed various methods of interaction with the girls and their families which ensure that there is a guaranteed supply of labour. To tie the girls to the employers they are given incentives and gifts for good production and performance. They are shown videos of popular movies near the work place, taken to the cinema theatre once every month. They have also ensured that the girls worked on their farms by circulating a myth that the farms cotton seed grow well only if touched by girl children especially those who have not attained their puberty. There does not seem to be any break to the dependence of the family and the employers as well on these girls.

It is in this situation that the MV Foundation has attempted to intervene. It was clear that an atmosphere had to be built to make it possible for the girls to abandon work and join into schools. Parents too had to be given confidence that they were taking the right decision in sending their daughters to schools. An assurance had to be given that their children would be given all the attention and care. More important the message that the one and only alternative to the drudgery and discrimination of girls is through education had to be made explicit. To elaborate, the education of girls through attendance in full time schools is crucial to liberate the girls from their daily chores. Education is an intrinsic value in itself needing no further justification. Yet in the case of girl children the spin off effects it has on their lives is immense. It enables them cope with the problem of gender discrimination. It extends the age of their marriage. They no longer would be child brides. They are better nourished and healthy as they no longer work. In fact they become better equipped to deal with adverse situations. Schooling also provides a break in the habits and culture which stultifies the growth of the girl child. It opens up options and possibilities new dreams and a newer future.
There are several interventions - such as training in health, awareness about reproductive health care, critique of patriarchal values and gender discrimination - being suggested for bettering the conditions of girl children. It is argued here that these programmes would make better impact if girls accessed education and were literate. More than anything schools provide leisure, time and space of their own. Thus when in school they are no longer exploited. They no longer have to work for others. They are discovering themselves and their potentialities. They acquire self esteem and confidence. This is their first step towards gender equality and breakdown of stereotypes. This is the beginning of their role as individuals in their own right.

Parents and girl children

When the MVF started it's motivation drive it had to contend with a volley of questions from the parents. For instance they asked, why should girls go to school? They will get married and go away to the in-laws house in any case. Is it not better that they are taught to cook and do the work at home and in the fields. If they get education then we will have to spend more on her marriage and dowry. Who is going to bear all these expenses? She will have scant respect for her elders. All these apprehensions were clarified by using examples of girl children in the villages who are in schools. The stories of girls who have passed out of schools and their status in the family and society was also discussed. The parents were also provoked to think about their own deprivations since they had never been to schools. They were impressed by the stubbornness of the youth volunteers who relentlessly pursued them. It is rare that they are treated with respect and talked to as equals. On more than one occasion the parents found the commitment and seriousness of the volunteers so compelling that they agreed to send their daughters to school, withdrawing them from work. In fact it was during these motivation drives one found out that many of the parents indeed had an innate desire for sending their daughters as well to schools. They did not do so because there was lack of atmosphere enabling them to take this vital decision. They needed the assurance that they were right in desiring that their daughters had to go to school. Thus if they had not sent their girls to school it was more a matter of habit and social pressure than their unwillingness to send their children to school.

Community support for girl children

In every village a door to door survey was conducted to identify the girl children out of schools. The survey was not just for data collection. It enabled discussion with each and every family on the need to send their daughters to school. The survey concluded in a public meeting which focused on the predicament of the girl child and the commitment of the village and its establishment to ease them work. There were also street plays in the villages on the theme of girls and their early marriage, schools etc. There were campaigns and rallies too on the issue. The entire programme helped in building an atmosphere for the community to discuss and see the possibilities of liberating them from work. Even as such a campaign was on it inspired several girls to meet the volunteers to help them cancel their engagements and also the marriages which were fixed. Some girls took courage to meet the volunteers discretely. They sought help for cancellation of an engagement ceremony or marriage. They narrated stories of how their friends lost their mind unable to cope with the in-laws and also sexual abuse of the spouses. Some of them even committed suicide. Thus sufficient pressure was built where girls needed support and even protection especially when they were in a mood to question and assert. It was soon realised that this agenda could not be of the MVF and it's volunteers alone. It required institutional support structures from the community. Thus in all the villages, committees were formed to protect the rights of the girl child. The committee had as its members elected representatives of the local bodies from the village, youth volunteers, representative from the local women's group and also the school headmaster. The committee took on the task of mobilising the parents and also hearing the appeals of girl children wanting to abandon work in favour of schooling. This has facilitated the process of creation of a social milieu, recognising the girl child and her needs. This is indeed still the very beginning of the long drawn out process of giving the girl her rightful place in the society.

Girl's own initiatives to join schools

As is well known it is not an easy task to contact the girls. They are so busy that to catch them while at leisure was itself impossible. The volunteers in every village had lists of all the potential candidates. They caught them on their route to the fields, or in the farms during lunch time. They were also contacted while they were tending to cattle, fetching water or fuel wood. They spoke to them when they were in groups and also while they were alone These children needed a lot of persuasion. Their sense of moral responsibility for their families was deeply ingrained. Their attachment to their mothers and concern for their well being in the eventuality of them not being around in times of need worried them a lot. The first step therefore was to bring them to a place which they could call their own where they could interact with peer their group and gain confidence. Thus motivation centres were set up in every village. It was through these centres that they interacted with one another, negotiated for more free time and longer hours away from home and the work place. They discovered the luxury of being among friends for achieving the purpose of joining schools. Some of these girls had leadership qualities and became crucial opinion makers. They did tremendous work in meeting parents, arguing with them and convincing their own friends to abandon work. Swaying these girls on to the agenda meant winning over at least ten more children at one go. The girls also gathered in large numbers for two to three days camp away from their own village. These 'melas' helped in the girls attaining a sense of solidarity. It became clear to them that they were not alone in their aspirations for going to school. When they returned home after these camps they gained courage to persuade their parents to allow them to study. Not all parents relented automatically. The girls had to protest using the weapons they had. Thus they sulked, wept, stopped talking, refused to eat till the parents agreed to let them go. Some girls even escaped the pressure at home and joined the MVF bridge course residential programmes without their parents support. Even such parents sooner than later changed their minds once they saw the world of difference it made to the girls. They were touched by the transformation of their daughters from workers to students. They were so convinced about the efficacy of the programme that they brought gifts and new set of clothes for them.
A word about the bridge course. The bridge course is for a period of three to twelve months. It prepares the girls as students to go into classes corresponding to their age. During the course they are given the confidence that they too can study, enjoy the world of books and at the same time acquire the discipline of learning. It also prepares the parents for parenthood and play the role of modern parents. In the meantime it orients the schools to welcome these children as very special persons.

Officials and the programme of girl child education

In the process of mobilising girls the MV Foundation found out that several departments could be accessed to the benefit of girl children. Thus for instance the police department intervened to stop early child marriages. The labour officials conducted enquiries in the villages when claims for back wages were made on behalf of the children. These claims were made more to harass the employer rather than to see that the girls had better conditions of work. Furthermore these petitions were made by the elected representatives of the local bodies. In doing so it helped in gaining their acceptance to the agenda of girls right to education. The revenue department was activated to go into the cases of children engaged as bonded labourers and release them from bondage. The health department and the doctors were approached to treat girls who were abused. The women and child welfare department too could be enlisted to run similar bridge course camps for girl children and bringing the issue of the right of the girl child into their purview. Since some of the girls had to eventually join the hostels set up by the social welfare department it was felt necessary to build community pressure for the effective functioning of the hostels.
Most important were the school teachers who participated in the campaign and implored the parents to send their girls to schools. They were guaranteed by them that they would be well looked after and not insulted. In effect it became evident that a co-ordinated effort of all the departments on the issue of girl child could bring about effective results.

Class in bridge course, preparing girls for primary education
(photograph: Gaby van der Mee)


The MV Foundation has so far been able to withdraw over 5000 girl children from work in all these five years. This summer alone more than 1000 girls rushed to the bridge course camps. Parents have shown remarkable resilience into accepting their girls in school. They had to make several adjustments but are willing to do so. They aspire for the unfamiliar and hope for a future for their girl children which they themselves were denied. The most important factor to make this possible is the conviction that girls even those belonging to the poorest families deserve schooling and education. It is also the faith in the immense capacities of the parents to try an alternative if given with seriousness. The girls themselves are pathfinders shattering the age old arguments denying them their basic human rights. It has given confidence to all of us that it is possible and necessary to provide them a space which they can call their own. And this space is their school. A space that is secular transcending all parochial values and sentiments reminding them of basic humanistic values. Their acts of courage and determination are the seeds sown for the well being of future generation of girls.

Shantha Sinha

chairperson MV Foundation
April 1998


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India Committee of the Netherlands - October 1, 1999